by Mallory Moad
Anxiety. Anger. Disbelief. Fear.
For the past seven months, we’ve been on a seemingly never-ending emotional roller coaster ride and for many, these feelings have become commonplace. We’ve been bombarded from all directions by social unrest, political upheaval, international health crises, natural disasters, and deep personal loss. Our schedules, diets and sleep cycles have been disrupted. In short, the world has been thrown for a loop.
But people, being for the most part resilient and creative, have found innovative ways in which to cope with these topsy-turvy times. We’ve turned to social media to share music videos recorded in our living rooms, live performances from our kitchens, readings from Shakespeare, plays produced and staged via Zoom, and photographs documenting daily lives. Signs have appeared in yards and windows thanking first responders and medical workers, and embracing diversity.But Fresno resident, Tom Key, has taken a unique approach to self-expression. He has converted the garage door of his Tower District home into a giant chalkboard. Since mid-March, Tom has been producing large-scale chalk drawings featuring imagery borrowed from pop culture, history, and current events. It all began when Tom, a Senior Project Architect at Teter Architects and Engineers, borrowed the glass markers a co-worker had brought in to give her kids a creative outlet when they visited. “Instead of cubicles, we have glass partitions,” he explains, “and I decorated my own workspace with sketches of famous buildings.” Eventually he began to arrive at work early to clandestinely embellish other areas. “This was well received and the partners enjoyed the fact that the drawings were sparking conversations about the buildings, exactly what art should do.” Tom expanded his repertoire of iconic structures to include images that were more personal in nature – a colorful keyboard for a co-worker who plays jazz piano and a pair of red sneakers in honor of CEO Greg Teter’s favorite song, Elvis Costello’s “The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes.”
Then Covid-19 raised its ugly head, and we all learned the meaning of “shelter in place.” But art can happen anywhere.After a few days of working from home, Tom’s wife, Terri Hungate suggested they hang colorful hearts in the windows of the house “so children and adults could see the whimsy in everyday life at a time when it seemed like the entire planet was angry.” The enormous windows were soon filled with paper hearts of all sizes, in a display of affection for the neighborhood. Recalling Tom’s drawings at work, Terri raised the possibility of painting the garage door with chalkboard paint and using it to post words of encouragement and inspiration. Tom agreed and chose the opening lines of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” for his first drawing: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” Well received by neighbors and passers-by, Tom was motivated to continue working in this new medium. Tom looks to pop culture, current events, and history for the subjects of his larger-than-life compositions. Avoiding religion or politics, he chooses instead to address the need for respite from the chaos with some familiar faces. Tom has enlisted the Tasmanian Devil, Freddie Mercury, The Blues Brothers, Mister Rogers, The Three Stooges, and gymnast Simone Biles (among others) to help spread the love. “I try to make the artwork somewhat funny and appealing to children,” he says. “But then life happens and I feel compelled to respond to public events with positive commentary.” These include Black Lives Matter and the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and rock icon Eddie Van Halen (both of whom were honored with heartfelt tributes). Tom uses common materials for his drawings – sidewalk chalk and regular classroom chalk. It’s nothing fancy, but “each has its own characteristics.” He employs a simple grid method to transfer a small drawing to the much larger garage door/chalkboard in the appropriate size. He has lots of ideas for future works – maybe even a Halloween scene – but generally doesn’t make a final decision until the morning of the new drawing. Some remain for a week, others only a day or two. Sometimes, as a challenge, he will deliberately choose an image that will prove to be difficult to execute. “I like it when people ask, ‘How did you do that?’” Tom is a licensed architect, having studied at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. For over six months he has been creating public art that is humorous, powerful, and thought-provoking, yet he insists he is not an artist. With his unique vision and the mad skills with which to effectively convey it, how could he be anything else? His creative generosity and focus on life’s bright side have provided neighbors and passers-by with comfort and conversation. His art is a gift to be enjoyed. And while it may feel, some days, as if the world has a frown on its face, a few minutes spent with one of Tom Key’s whimsical drawings will put a smile on yours.
My name is Mallory Moad, and I believe good things are always visible if you keep your eyes open.